The Utah Jazz left for Orlando on Tuesday, one of the first NBA teams headed for the Disney World campus bubble that will be their home and base of operations for the foreseeable future, as the league looks to get the season resumed.
A few details of what awaits them are known — such as an immediate COVID-19 test upon arrival, another one in 24 hours or so, plus all the myriad details that emerged from the 100-plus-page guidebook of protocols that the league issued last month.
Still, though, no one on the Jazz had any illusions in the days leading up to their departure that they had any real semblance of what to expect.
“The NBA has done everything they can to make it as as zip-tight as possible for us to be able to compete at a high level and not worry about it. But we do understand it’s still a lot of unknowns,” said point guard Mike Conley.
And really, that applies to pretty much everything they’ll experience between now and when they kick off the season re-start with a July 30 game against the New Orleans Pelicans.
How will practices go? And individual workouts? Who is in shape and who isn’t? Are injuries about to become commonplace? How seamlessly can teams pick up where they left off? Can all the rules put in place realistically be followed? Will cabin fever take root after a couple weeks of confinement to the campus? What will the reaction be if someone inside tests positive for COVID-19? Will there be a mass exodus? How will the games ultimately look? What will the atmosphere be like with no fans? Can players possibly continue their push for racial equality and police reform from onside the bubble?
No one knows. No one can possibly know any of that yet.
For what it’s worth, several players said they don’t anticipate having much trouble acclimating to the bubble.
“I’m very happy spending time on my own with a book, or playing video games. I’ve been doing that pretty much my whole life,” said center Rudy Gobert.
“Quarantine life was kind of easy for me. I just played video games, hung out with my dog. So I kind of feel like it’s going to be the same thing — just without my dog,” added Royce O’Neale.
Still, one of the few things the Jazz universally agreed upon in their pre-Orlando media sessions is that those without wives and kids will likely have an easier time than those leaving families behind.
“I can see where their concerns are. Somebody like me — being single, no kids, no wife — it’s probably an easier decision,” noted Emmanuel Mudiay. “But I can see someone like Joe [Ingles] or Mike [Conley], their wives are pregnant, they want to just make sure that they can keep themselves and their family as safe as possible.”
Indeed, Conley voiced his intention to leave the bubble at some point to be with his wife, Mary, when their child is born — a move that coach Quin Snyder wholeheartedly endorsed.
Ingles’ wife, Renae, meanwhile, isn’t due until after the full postseason is slated to end, which doesn’t mean that he’s without his own concerns.
“One of the scarier parts is, once this is all over, going back to my family and not having symptoms or something like that and then taking it back,” Ingles said. “So going back will be something I’m very cautious with as well.”
Star guard Donovan Mitchell, meanwhile, is hopeful that the attention on social issues that players were devoted to fostering during the hiatus can continue unabated.
Though he expressed personal disappointment at not being able to be on the “front lines,” he expressed confidence that the league and the Players Association will be able to collectively push forward some initiatives to take advantage of the coming spotlight.
“We’re working on a bunch of things that I can’t really say right now. But I think there’s a lot of things that are going to come out of us being down there in that bubble,” Mitchell said. “We’ll go down there and continue to use that platform that we have down there … go out there and make the most of it and go out there, continue to spread the message and spread all of the knowledge that a lot of guys in this league have.”
And then, of course, there’s the actual basketball.
Assuming most everyone passes the necessary two COVID-19 tests, the Jazz are tentatively slated to hold their first full team practice since March on Thursday.
Coach Quin Snyder doesn’t expect it to be completely analogous to when players typically return from the offseason in October.
“The training camp portion, I don’t really see it as a typical training camp. I see it differently than that,” Snyder said. “I think we have to compete, we have to play so we can see some of those things in order to make some of the adjustments.”
He has no doubt that once the games begin, players will treat them with the importance they deserve. Which still doesn’t mean they’ll be just like typical regular-season games. He needs to figure out how to account for the absence of the injured Bojan Bogdanovic. He’ll also consult closely with Mike Elliott, the team’s “vice president of performance health care” to determine how much and how often players should play, whether to extend his bench, et cetera.
The players, meanwhile, are curious to see how their hiatus conditioning program compares to that of other teams, whether they can run opponents who didn’t take their work seriously in their own time off the court.
“One of the cool things about doing it is, if teams haven’t been taking care of themselves individually or as a team, then you can really get a kind of jump on a team,” Ingles said. “I feel like we’ll be ready.”
As for the atmosphere of the games themselves, with no fans in the building, Conley predicted it’ll be a bit like reverting to the neighborhood basketball they all played as kids. O’Neale likened it to AAU, but with “more restrictions.”
“I feel like it’s just us out there hooping, to be honest with you. … When we have runs in the summertime, ain’t no fans in there — everybody is just competing,” said Jordan Clarkson. “I think it’s just going to be like us hooping in the summer time and just straight competing and going hard.”
Georges Niang agreed — though he surmised these games would have one extra bit of motivation that summertime runs do not.
“I don’t think it really changes much. I mean, obviously, some guys feed off the energy of fans, but I think we haven’t had basketball in so long that that is just going to be an afterthought,” he said. “I think guys are used to playing pickup with no fans at this time of the year, and you can just think of it like that — except your paycheck’s on the line.”
The sharpshooting reserve forward added that he’s pleased by the serendipitous symmetry of the Jazz taking part in the first game back — considering that many people view them as responsible for the league having shut down to begin with.
“I’m excited to be the first one, since we kind of were — I guess people would say — the ‘Patient Zero.’ So I’m excited to be the first one, to put that one under our belt and not have to watch another team play,” Niang said. “And we can kind of just be the first one to knock it out. And it happens to be the Pelicans, so we get to see [Derrick Favors]. Fav’s always a great, happy, joyous, familiar face, so that’ll be exciting.”